Tom Sutcliffe: How to lead the eye a merry dance

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Darren Aronofsky's film Black Swan is as wildly over-the-top as anything I've seen on a screen for years, so saturated with Romantic angst and Freudian insinuation that it virtually squelches. So it may seem slightly perverse to select it as an example of the virtues of cinematic understatement. Oddly, though, it seems you can have both – a kind of sotto voce yelling. In one respect Black Swan is about as subtle as a freeway billboard – an account of sexual neurosis and nervous breakdown, in a New York ballet company, which is sometimes risible in its excess and its loyalty to genre tropes. But in another sense it keeps doing things that are only just on the brink of visibility. And that those are in the service of something lurid didn't really, for me, undermine the pleasure I got from them.

It's possible, of course, that I'm just getting older – reflexes slowing and eyesight fading so that what is plain as a pike-staff to a 20-year-old struck me as having a watercolour delicacy. One day, I fear, nearly all the films I watch may look like miracles of ambivalent suggestion. But I'm assuming that's not the case with this film partly because of past record – Aronofsky's, not mine. His previous films – Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler among them – have also displayed this odd combination of primary-colour emotion with pastel subtleties of method. In Black Swan – which is partly intent on spooking the viewer – it's quite often a matter of something glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

When Natalie Portman's dancer is first on her way to the dance studio, for instance, she momentarily sees something in the darkened window of the subway train which startles her. We've seen it with her – but so swift is the edit (and so confused the image anyway, by darkness and reflection and movement) that we can't be sure. This happens a lot in the film. The camera swings back to catch something that has flickered at the corner of the eye, only to discover that the scene is entirely stable. Or something odd is tucked into the normal to-and-fro pleating of an edited shot, so that you can't be entirely sure that your nerves aren't twitching rather than what's on screen. When the DVD comes out the real fans will be able to step-advance their way through these scenes to their hearts' content. But for the moment we're dependent on our own perceptions.

This sort of thing has been done before, of course. But what's striking in the case of Black Swan is how little Aronofsky uses to get your uncertainty going. Something similar happens on the soundtrack, across which occasionally flutters a very faint sound of rasping feathers. To my ears – not, perhaps in mint-condition but not yet faulty – it's very precisely judged to lie just on the threshold of mere ambience, where it might be dismissed as some background noise. And, as a result, it's anything but "mere" the next time you hear it in a different setting. And in both cases the spectacle is unusual because it's an instance of a film director trying to hide his special effects rather than thrust them full in your face. There are no signposts.

It's an approach you would more conventionally associate with an art-house style. As it happens you can also see it at work in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film Biutiful – another work which exploits cinema's ability to put the corner of your eye in the middle of a screen. Its central character believes he's clairvoyant – and we believe it too, after the most fleeting glimpses of his visions. They're the kind of thing a coarser director would drop into the edit like a drum roll – in particular the eerie manifestation of the recently dead clinging to the ceiling of a room like giant geckos. But Inarritu sweeps over them almost in passing, so that they never become a fixed fact. An inattentive viewer might not see them at all – which is perhaps why the device (it is one, after all) is so satisfying.

A lot of directors treat you as if you're half blind and deaf already and raise their voices condescendingly. Aronofsky and Inarritu treat us as if we still have all our faculties – and assume that we will actually employ them.

Why there are no flies on these classy curators

Curatorship, when it comes to exhibitions at least, is a relatively unsung skill, the art of choosing and arranging works of art tending to be eclipsed in the reviews by the art itself. That's as it should be, of course, but I still think Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson should get a few nods for Modern British Sculpture. For one thing, whatever you think of their overall selection, they certainly weren't intimidated by popular reputation. No Anish Kapoor, no Antony Gormley, no Rachel Whiteread and no Mark Quinn – sizeable noses to put out of joint (unless, of course, they squared it with the noses first). For another thing, they've created at least one terrific room here – a gallery devoted to the theme of Theft by Finding, which promiscuously mingles ancient and 20th-century works of sculpture to make the case that Modernism was a continuity not an innovation. And thirdly, they've taken on what must be the most disgusting chore in fine art maintenance ever contrived – the business of keeping Damien Hirst's "Let's Eat Outdoors Today" in display condition. If you haven't seen it it consists of a container-sized vitrine divided into two cubicles – one of which contains maggots and meat and the other a live Insect-O-Cutor. Since the show runs until April, one presumes fresh flies or fresh food must be introduced at some point. Whoever does it deserves the curatorial equivalent of the George Cross.

Not out of the woods quite yet

David Vann's second novel, Caribou Island, turns out to be "second" in a complicated way, interviews with the author suggesting that its composition straddled the publication of his first book, Legend of a Suicide – first drafts preceding that book's remarkable success and final drafts written in the immediate afterglow. What's more, the writing of Legend of a Suicide was complicated as well – with elements of the finished book appearing in various forms and at various times, before being fused into a novel by its British publisher. Eventually, I suppose, some Midwestern humanities teacher will work out a timeline for all the bits and pieces. In the meantime all we can say about Vann is that he certainly knows where the mother-lode lies. Before you've read ten lines of Caribou Island, you've encountered a memory of parental suicide and, as the novel proceeds, you find yourself – just as you did in Legend of a Suicide – reading about an ill-fated expedition into the backwoods, with one character whose fantasies far outstrip his abilities and another who is there under duress. It is terrific, to my mind. I can't wait to read his next one. But I will be keeping my fingers crossed that there's no log-cabin and no self-slaughter next time round.



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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